Equipping for Disaster Relief

earthquakes Turkey
The challenge of rescuing trapped people after the 6 February earthquakes that hit both Turkey and Syrian was immense.

The major earthquakes that hit Turkey and Syria in early February have provided a stark reminder for the need to be prepared for disasters, natural or otherwise.

The earthquake in Turkey was the deadliest worldwide since the Haiti earthquake of 2010, and is reported to be the fifth largest earthquake of the 21st century. Sadly, over 50,000 deaths have been confirmed in both countries as of the writing of this feature.

Not that one needs a devastating earthquake to be a reminder, but the need to equip for disaster relief is a remit which all countries should recognise because the skills required to respond to such events are perishable, and the tools used are evolving.

USAR teams lead the way

Aside from the immediate response of local emergency services, the first groups which typically respond to large disasters are Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) teams, which are categorised in three levels – Light, Medium and Heavy.

Light and Medium USAR teams are required to carry out operations at one worksite; while Heavy USAR teams are required to carry out simultaneous operations at two worksites, separated at a reasonable distance requiring the team to operate from separate equipment and field logistical support caches.

USAR teams work in concert with the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG), a global network of more than 90 countries and organisations that was created within the framework of existing humanitarian coordination within the United Nations (UN).

Established in 1991, INSARAG’s primary purpose is to facilitate coordination between the various international USAR teams who make themselves available for deployment to countries experiencing devastating events of structural collapse due primarily to earthquakes.

INSARAG deals with USAR related issues, aiming to establish minimum international standards for USAR teams and methodology for international coordination in earthquake response based on the INSARAG Guidelines endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 57/150 of 2002, on “Strengthening the Effectiveness and Coordination of International Urban Search and Rescue Assistance.” This resolution is widely considered to have underpinned much of the progress achieved by the group over the last two decades.

One of the most interesting developments with INSARAG is the addition of the Virtual On-Site Operations Coordination Centre (VOSOCC), a web-based information management tool for information exchange between international responders and the affected country after disasters. Access to the VOSOCC is restricted to disaster managers from governments and disaster response organisations, but is proving to be an excellent tool to share information and troubleshoot amongst professionals.

Technology enables rescue response

After a disaster occurs, afflicted areas are divided into sectors where INSARAG provides groups that coordinate international response teams with respect to where they will deploy and where they will enter into the region. The level of team dictates the type equipment they arrive with, but there are some tried and trusted pieces of kit which are common to most teams, such as the Delsar Life Detector LD3 is commonly used in collapsed structures where its seismic and acoustic sensors convert vibrations created by live entombed victims into audible and visual signals, which focuses the attention of rescuers. Communications are also essential, with growing emphasis on satellite radios for increased range.

Heavy earth moving equipment greatly helps USAR teams clear debris, but this process must be slow and methodical to ensure victims are not injured. These assets are often found locally, or can be transported into a disaster site. Excavators and cranes are the primary assets which are sought after as they provide ‘reach-over’ capability; while bulldozers are typically brought in later as they are used for clearing paths, and this happens once debris has been searched.

“The biggest thing about any teams that deploy into a disaster zone is they have to be self sufficient,” said Glenn Cooper, Team Commander of Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt Medium USAR Team. “We typically travel by air, so that means all our equipment – like generators – need to be purged of any fuel for safety. That means we show up on the ground with zero fuel, so part of our sign-in when we come into the reception centre is that we provide the United Nations with a list of how much fuel and oxygen tanks – for medical and for cutting torches – we will require on average per day. Then it’s up to the INSARAG United Nations group to actually find that – in a lot of the cases they’ll set up fuelling points where we can come in with Jerry cans or whatever we need to fuel up.”

Because fuel is often at a premium, the trend towards rechargeable tools is growing. Speaking to this, Cooper said, “Over the last five years, our team started a transition to being able to provide all of the rescue capabilities that we have with battery operated tools. One of the biggest considerations are tools that have common interchangeable battery packs. Our first equipment cache is now pretty much battery operated, and we can then switch to fuel powered tools for longer sustained operations if necessary. I’m seeing the same trend with the US teams that we train with, where they’re moving to more of the quick and light, easily deployable, less fuel-dependent style of equipment.”

Another critical piece of kit for disaster relief is water purification systems, and the trend is to deploy with a system that will enable teams to be self-sufficient for a minimum of 10 days.

Companies like BluMetric specialise in highly effective clean water solutions; it offers three sizes of mobile potable water treatment systems that produce 750 – 6,500L/hr of drinking water. Their smallest solution can be powered by green energy and the other systems can be powered by shore power or by an onboard generator. Their Reverse Osmosis Water Purification Unit has been delivered to the Canadian Armed Forces and the Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART).

A growing trend for portable water purification systems are solar/battery powered units, as these enable operations with minimal energy requirements.

Other trends in disaster relief equipment are imaging technologies and autonomous systems. Leading the way with relatively new imaging technology is FirstLook’s FL360, a live-streaming 360° multipurpose technical rescue camera. The FL360 is typically affixed to extendable probes, and it gives rescuers the ability to harness high-definition, streaming video that can be transmitted via wired or wireless connections to a mobile device.

The FL360 is unique in that it records images from two ultrawide lenses and stitches them together to create a spherical view of the entire environment into which it is placed. A simple 2-3 second recording can be looped on the FL360 viewer allowing a detailed inspection of the space even after the camera is removed. The FL360 has the capability to record 360° video, take screenshots, and communicate via two-way audio. All recorded media is digitally overlaid on a map, and is time-, date-, and GPS-stamped.

Send in unmanned

Unmanned vehicles have also proved to be a gamer changer in expediting searches post-disaster. “There’s a lot of focus on how to send drones in to do a search within a very high risk area so we don’t have to put personnel’s lives at risk,” said Cooper. “When we are assigned a sector, that can be 50 square miles, so an aerial drone can search quicker than I can actually get a team into an area to even start searching, so drones are a big game changer in disaster response.”

Unmanned ground vehicles are also proving to be helpful in collapsed structures. “The biggest thing to remember is that I’m not sending my team into a structure until it’s stable, and that may take many hours to shore up,” Cooper explained. “A ground drone can actually get into small space and start bringing in water, or they may be able to drag in communications gear so we can have two-way communication with entombed victims. That’s huge – if we can get in contact and start talking to the person and letting them know that help is near, it could extend many hours onto their life. Just knowing that people are there helps them survive.”

On the medical front, ‘bleed stop’ bandages and powders which help to stem haemorrhaging have become critical pieces of kit with disaster relief teams. “It’s more of a military thing but it’s used in search and rescue because most of the time we’re not medics that are getting to these casualties, so you need something that is easy to use to give victims the best chance for survival,” said Cooper.

Without shelter there is no response

Weatherhaven has a legacy of providing its redeployable emergency response infrastructure for disaster relief into Southeast Asia and around the world. According to the company, the solution begins by listening to the needs of the military, understanding the concept of operations, logistic restraints and budgets, and providing a redeployable concept with fielded products that will operate in every terrain and climate.

Militaries such as the Japanese Ground Self-Defence Force (JGSDF) were proactive after the 1995 earthquake in Kobe and came to Weatherhaven with a need for deployable triage centres to treat its civilian population, and command posts for the military forces to be able to communicate after a disaster strikes. The result was the Japanese purchasing almost 100 expandable containers complete with integrated washroom facilities, water bladders, life vests, and other earthquake rescue equipment, which were stored across Japan to strategically be able to deploy should another earthquake or natural disaster occur.

“Weatherhaven understands that militaries are expeditionary in nature and need to go anywhere at any time and respond quickly to time-sensitive global events,” said Ray Castelli, Weatherhaven’s CEO. “That’s why our shelter systems are designed to be well-engineered, robust and easily transportable, as well as being tested to deploy in all climates,”

Other militaries have followed suit in being proactive in procuring field deployable medical shelter systems, emergency response camps, and field hospitals, so when such disasters occur, the Armed Forces are pre-positioned to deploy their infrastructure to provide disaster relief and humanitarian aid to those who are most vulnerable after such incidents. This emergency response equipment can include heating, air conditioning, ventilation systems, power generation and distribution, water treatment systems, waste management and more.

After launching a worldwide competitive tender, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) Joint Army and Air Force purchased over 130 Weatherhaven softwall shelters, vestibules, air conditioning units with air exchange and high-efficiency particulate absorbing (HEPA) filters for its Deployable Health Capability Controlled Environment Shelter Systems (CESS) program. This equipment was designed for relief in disasters such as the Sumatra earthquake, with some of the CESS equipment deployed to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. The ADF’s current priorities, as set in the 2016 Defence White Paper identifies three main areas of focus, the second priority being its contribution to the security of Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.

Not only did the ADF and Canada deploy to Haiti with Weatherhaven equipment after the 2010 earthquake, but so did Brazil, the Uruguayans, and the United Nations.

“Weatherhaven has an active and intensive research and development programme, so we can continually update and improve upon the company’s existing products with new and innovative infrastructure solutions, including solar panel technology, and other energy efficient and sustainable equipment, in order to provide our customers with reduced in-service support costs,” says Castelli.

Weatherhaven’s research and development department has responded to customer’s needs and created lighter weight and more agile expandable containers that can be towed by HUMVEEs and Ford F-150s, capable of helicopter slingload, or transported on a single 463L aircraft pallet, providing transportation efficiencies and fuel savings to militaries that deploy globally.

Weatherhaven’s Tactical Redeployable Expanding Container Capability (TRECC-T) is being trialed and fielded by the U.S. military for mission command platforms, another capability which is essential in disaster relief efforts. The TRECC-T is aluminum constructed, lightweight, capable of helicopter sling load, deployed by 2 operators in 90 seconds, and optimized for trailer and truck applications.

The company’s latest tactical infrastructure includes the Rapidly Deployable Modular Shelter System (RDMSS), which was designed and built in response to Canada’s Headquarters Shelter System (HQSS) program, consisting of a family of modular and scalable soft walled shelters and ancillary equipment to serve as command posts, medical facilities and temporary accommodations.

The same RDMSS infrastructure was supplied to the Government of Canada for its 3 x 100-bed Mobile Health Units during the pandemic for Covid relief. The MHUs were augmented with HEPA filtration systems and negative air scrubbers that met the World Health Organization’s standard for number of air exchanges per minute to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

“The key to disaster relief infrastructure that is provided to the military is to have equipment that is simple in design, flexible to configure, requires no special tools or equipment to setup in the field and has minimal maintenance,” says Castelli. “The equipment needs to be modular and scalable so it can grow with the needs of the customer – providing militaries with large field hospitals to brigade-level command and control headquarters.”

Without manpower there is no rescue

Sharing his thoughts on technological advancements as they pertain to disaster relief, Cooper said: “I’ve been doing this over 20 years now and I’ve seen a lot of new stuff come in that everybody’s all excited about. They are enablers to be sure, but in the long run, it’s the people on the ground doing very hard work in a very hazardous environment that gets the job done. That’s why training is so important when it comes to disaster relief – it takes trained people who know how to use the tools we have, and know how to work safely so we can best help those in need.”

by Dr. Joetey Attariwala